Random Acts of Kindness in Hell

Full of Flowers. Photographs by Pam Putney.

Full of Flowers. Photographs by Pam Putney.

It was after midnight in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but my tuk tuk driver, Hiep, was still waiting patiently for me outside the national maternal-child health hospital in the stifling heat, despite the fact that he had dropped me off just after sunrise that morning. I told him not to wait, that I could find one of the many other tuk tuk drivers to take me home, but the suggestion horrified him. “I pick up you,” he said emphatically, making me feel safe and taken care of in a city where ghosts of the millions of victims of genocide still haunt every corner.

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Pam Putney — Random Acts of KindnessIn the early 1980s, after practicing as a nurse midwife in a variety of settings in the United States, I started working around the globe to assist the U.S. Government, United Nations, international agencies, and foundations, to design, implement, and evaluate health care programs. Maternal and child health is a focus of my work, but the situation in developing countries required me to work on the gamut of public health problems such as malaria; HIV/AIDS; tuberculosis; strengthening health systems; health care financing; health worker training, including traditional midwives and healers; and health policy.

People tend to have a romantic notion about my work. But what I do is the opposite of romantic. My heart is broken continuously. I return from each trip, be it to places like Guatemala, Yemen, Cambodia, or Rwanda, physically and emotionally exhausted, haunted by images of suffering I can do little to alleviate, no matter how hard I try. Yet the rare and unexpected gestures of human kindness people bestow on me in some of the saddest places on earth enable me to carry on. I call them “random acts of kindness in hell.”

A few of those random acts of kindness:

While working on health projects in Guatemala during the 1980s, midwives and medical students I was working with would suddenly disappear, never to be seen again. They were among the estimated two hundred thousand people, most of whom were innocent civilians, who died or disappeared in Guatemala during the civil-war years. I started obsessively filling wherever I was staying with flowers. One morning I was working with a pediatrician in a village outside of Antigua when the army shot and killed six tiny indigenous children just for sport. When I arrived “home,” my room was packed from floor to ceiling with flowers. The indigenous women working at the guesthouse where I often stayed would not hear of letting me pay for them: it was their “gift to me,” in return for the health advice I often gave them and for treating their children when they were sick.

The national director of midwifery and I were hours late reaching a health center after a long, dusty drive through the dramatic landscape of Zimbabwe. The traditional midwives had been waiting patiently in the hot sun since early that morning, after walking many miles to speak to us, braving spitting cobras and lions with only a walking stick as protection. They wore long dresses with matching turbans made from the colorful local cloth. Before a word was spoken they raised their voices in song. The harmonies were so complex and melodious it was as though I were standing in front of a chorus of angels.

Pam Putney — Random Acts of Kindness

In Yemen, in 2003, Mohammed, the caretaker for the health project I was working for, wore flowing white robes, a head covering with a checkered headband, and a menacing-looking curved sword (janbiya) attached to the front of his belt. Mohammed was a Yemeni “foodie” and rated every little hole-in-the-wall restaurant as “one janbiya, two janbiya, three janbiya” — three being the best. One day on the way to a health facility, we were told that three militants had been crucified because they tried to stop the villagers from chewing khat (a stimulant widely used in Yemen and the Middle East). We passed stone walls covered with blood. Shaken, I returned to the office to a “three janbiya” meal Mohammed had reverently prepared for me. I devoured it gratefully.

In Nepal in the 1980s, one in ten women died in childbirth, and in the 1990s, access to health care was further limited by Maoist guerrillas who were terrorizing Nepali villages, making it difficult to help the midwives working in remote areas. Using my rudimentary Nepali, I was lucky enough to convince the Maoists we encountered that “it was in the interest of the revolution” to let us pass. One afternoon we stopped to eat on the ledge of a mountain path. A little boy with his four younger sisters in tow hovered at the edge of our blanket, hoping for some food. As we left, I handed him a package of cookies and watched him carefully divide them equally. Even the one-year-old received her fair share. A few hours later, as we trekked up the steep mountain path, I heard a little voice calling “Didi, Didi” (Nepali for sister). The little boy ran up to me carrying a beautiful necklace he had made from wildflowers. Tears flowed down my cheeks as he placed it over my head.

No matter how poor or dire people’s circumstances are, I have witnessed them find a certain peace when creating art and finding beauty to share.

Be kind! Even little gestures can rekindle a person’s spirit . . .

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